When the UAE launched the golden visa residency programme in 2019, it gave hope to many residents, who consider the country their home.
Three years later, several families who received the ten-year and five-year visas have spoken about the sense of security and permanency they enjoy from the long-term residency.
It allows them to stay in the country regardless of their employment status.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, announced the launch of the initiative in May 2019 to give foreign workers and investors the opportunity to establish deeper roots in the country and allow the nation to benefit from their expertise.
Celebrities, researchers, businessmen, medical professionals, artists, as well as high-achieving students and their families have benefitted from the initiative.
Dubai has awarded more than 150,000 golden visas since the launch of the programme.
'I feel safer now'
Hani Al Hendi, 40, from Syria told The National that he enjoyed a deep sense of security after he received a golden visa in March 2022.
“I feel safer now. It makes me feel like I belong to this country,” he said.
Mr Al Hendi, an electronic engineer, works as a sales manager at a Dubai-based information technology company.
He became eligible for the 10-year visa in the “talented individuals” category.
His wife Rana Shehady, a marketing manager with a pharmaceutical company, and their daughter, Emily, 2, also received the 10-year visa.
Mr Al Hendi said he always worried that he would have no place to return if he lost his job.
“I have never gone back to Syria since 2013,” he said.
“When the government started offering golden visas to experts and talented individuals, I immediately applied online. I got the approval in March this year. I cannot begin to tell you how happy and relieved I was.”
Mr Al Hendi came to the UAE in 2013 when what began as a peaceful uprising against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad flared into a full-scale civil war in his home country.
“People were fleeing their homes and going to Europe as refugees. My parents and two sisters went to France. But I decided to come to the UAE on a visit visa instead,” he said.
“I was 30, single and did not have any money. But I was confident that the UAE would not close its doors to people from any nationality if they are talented and willing to work hard.
“I knew I would have economic opportunities I would not find anywhere else.”
Nine years later, with a golden visa on his passport, Mr Al Hendi said he had no regrets.
“I met my wife here and got married. My daughter is growing up in the UAE, and this is her home. This is where our future is,” he said.
'UAE gave me everything'
Come March 2023, Indian businessman Suresh Basantani will complete 50 years in the UAE. He had a golden visa stamped in his passport before celebrating his 70th birthday this August.
“I am a UAE citizen at heart. I have lived here long enough to belong here,” Mr Basantani, who owns Yugoslavian Furniture, a company with branches in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, told The National.
“Getting a golden visa is an honour. It makes me happy that the UAE recognises our contribution to this country.”
Mr Basantani's rise from a small spice vendor to a millionaire businessman is one among many rags-to-riches stories in the UAE.
He said he was only 20 when he borrowed Rs400 (Dh18) from friends and boarded a ship from Mumbai to Dubai on March 14, 1973, hoping to make it big.
“I had a huge can of ghee [clarified butter] and some packets of cardamom in my luggage, which I hoped to sell in Dubai,” he said.
Recalling his early life in Dubai, Mr Basantani said it was hard to imagine in those days that the UAE would become a global destination.
“There were no paved roads, cars or even electricity,” he said.
“We slept outdoors when the temperature became unbearable. I used to walk to the post office to check if I had mail from India. We had to wait for weeks to get an occasional trunk call to speak to family back home.”
After a rough start, Mr Basantani ventured into the furniture business, and his fortunes soared.
His wife Koushi Basantani also joined him in Dubai, and he built a family in the UAE.
“I never had to look back. Five decades have passed, and this country has given me everything,” he said.
The UAE is home to three generations of Basantanis now.
His two daughters, Sarika and Sonam, are married and reside in the UAE. Sarika’s children Ranveer, 12, and Naisa, 9, go to school in Abu Dhabi.
“It is their home. This is the only home they know,” he said.
Mr Basantani said it was the Arab hospitality that had made the family stay.
“You are always treated with respect. I have more friends here than I have back in Mumbai. Nobody even knows me in India,” he said.
“Now, there is a new sense of belonging as I don’t have to keep renewing my visa every three years. That is a great feeling.”
Talent is the best investment
Kiran Nair received his golden visa last year in the “talented individuals” category.
Currently, an associate professor at the Abu Dhabi School of Management, Mr Nair told The National that receiving a golden visa meant an official stamp of approval that he was a talent worth retaining.
“Personally, it was a huge recognition for me. It means prestige,” he said.
“I started my career as a sales executive and worked with multinational companies in leadership positions up until 2016 when I made a huge career change and joined the Abu Dhabi School of Management,” said Mr Nair from Kerala, India.
His wife Lakshmi and daughter Krishna, 15, and son Arnav, 9, also have golden visas.
Having a 10-year visa that is not linked to his job gives him “huge comfort and confidence”, allowing him to plan for a future in the UAE, Mr Nair said.
“I know many friends who have migrated to Canada or Australia for permanent residency. I never considered it as I wanted to be closer to India where my parents live. The quality of life we get here is great,” he said.
“Having a golden visa removes the worry about visa renewals and the insecurity of having to return in the event of a job loss.
“A 10-year visa in my passport makes me feel I have a long-term future in the country that offers plenty of opportunities to grow and enjoy a safe and comfortable life.”